You’ve almost certainly seen festive holiday light balls around town this time of year. Typically hanging in an impressive oak on an equally impressive street, these colorful orbs appear suspended in air, illuminating the cold winter sky with a subtle sophistication that an inflatable Santa just can’t bring.
Not only are they fun to look at, the light balls are a great North Carolina tradition, with most of the available history pointing to the origins in the Sunset Hills neighborhood of Greensboro in 1996. From there, the balls have proliferated throughout the region, and the Queen City has embraced the ritual.
Charlotte is perfect for this type of decoration because of our tree canopy and you can see some of the greatest examples of this on display on Hillside Avenue in Myers Park and Thomas Street in Plaza Midwood. The most dramatic effect of the light balls is when there are many of them hanging high above the ground in a grand old tree.
And unlike that inflatable Santa, they’re cheap, relatively easy to make, fun to hang, and quintessentially North Carolinian. I’m all in on this tradition.
But don’t just be a passive viewer of festive light balls, get into the spirit and turn your own neighborhood into a light ball destination. While the end result is dramatic, the process is very easy. You essentially create a ball out of chicken wire, wrap lights around it, and connect it to an extension cord handing over the limb of a tree. Boom, endless merriment.
To further eliminate any mystery, here’s a step by step guide to making your own light balls:
1. Assemble your Implements of Festivity
Gather chicken wire, lights, more extension cords than you expect, wire snips, electrical tape, a string of lights (with at least 100 bulbs), above-average digital dexterity, and band aids for when you poke your fingers.
2. Spread out your festive chicken wire into a 2’x3’ square.
Obviously the bigger the square, the bigger the ball is going to be. Big light balls sound great but remember you’ll have to wrap lights around the light ball, and a finished ball looks the best when the lights are dense and show off the spherical shape. Also, you’re going to have to huck this thing over a tree branch so bigger is not necessarily better.
3. Make a festive chicken wire cylinder
Take your sheet of chicken wire and turn it into a cylinder. This is the easiest step. If you need more help with cylinders I found this to be a helpful guide.
4. Fold in the top and bottom of the cylinder until it’s a festive ball
Pick one end of the cylinder and start folding in the corners until it gets round. This is much more art than science, so keep at it until it looks like it’s getting round. The goal is to create a ball that looks good wrapped in lights at night.
No one will judge you if your chicken wire ball looks lumpy in the stark winter sunlight. It’s just an underlying structure for the real star: your lights. Repeat your rounding process for the other side of the cylinder until your ball is complete.
5. Hook the festive male end of a string of lights inside the ball
This is where you’ll plug the ball in to the extension cord. Wrap the plug through the chicken wire a few times. Note: you will scratch up your hand doing this. But it’s worth it. And you might get a nice scar to remind yourself of the holidays. Fun!
6. Wrap the festive string of lights around the ball, ensuring comprehensive ball coverage
Just keep wrapping until you’ve covered as much of the chicken wire ball as possible with lights. Cover the female end of the light ball with some electrical tape, for #safety.
Congratulations! You’ve created a festive holiday light ball! Now comes the question of how you’d like to display your light ball or light balls. The most dramatic effect of the light balls is when many of them are hanging high above the ground over a grand old tree. But you can create a pleasant effect hanging just a single ball on your small porch outside your apartment. Wherever you decide to hang the balls, you’ll need an extension cord and a safe outdoor outlet in which to plug in the cord. Preferably hooked up to an automatic timer.
If you’ve got a stately old oak on which to hang your balls and a crapload of extension cords, I suggest you use it. But unless you have a deathwish and nothing but time, climbing the tree to hang them is impossible. To get the light balls properly strung, you’ll need some sort of conveyance to get a string over the branch, then attach an extension cord to the string and pull the cord over the branch and back down, where you can attach the light ball.
The most effective method I’ve seen for doing this is attach a string to a tennis ball, then throwing the tennis ball over a branch, attaching an extension cord, and pulling it over the branch until you can plug in the ball. Sound complicated? It is. No one said decorating was easy.
So get after it, Charlotte. Turn your street into the next Hillside Avenue, and I’ll be there to bask in the radiant glory of your work. Share a picture of your creation with us on Twitter or Instagram @charlotteagenda.